Why do we try to out-run grief?
When a part of our body hurts, our instinct is to move or adjust our position to relieve the pain and protect ourselves. It is the same in early grief. Initially our mind protects us by putting us in a state most of us describe as feeling numb. We might cry and feel emotions during this period,but this is the time when people are most impressed at how well we are coping and how strong we are.There is a sense of disbelief and going through the motions, none of it seems real - it might surprise people who haven’t been through this to find that we can’t remember large chunks of this period!
However at some point (for me it was around the 3 month mark) the shock and associated numbness starts to wear off and the real pain of grief starts to kick in along with the realisation that this has really happened, they are really gone and they are not ever coming back. The pain is intense, and often accompanied by physical symptoms (I used to literally be unable to breathe for a few seconds, and had palpitations) and the initial instinct is to try to change something to avoid the pain.
Everyone handles this differently. I threw myself into work. Others have described using alcohol to numb the pain, or turning to others for physical comfort and touch. One of my daughters refused to speak or hear his name - she would literally leave the room if Chris was mentioned - and if she couldn’t do that she would ask us to change the subject.
Whatever strategy is used, it seems to be all about distraction and keeping busy and not allowing yourself any time to feel. One book I read suggested allowing yourself a scheduled period of time, say 30 minutes each day, to allow yourself to feel and cry. If that is practical advice for you then it might be the healthiest approach, but I have never been that good at compartmentalising. I couldn’t plan for when the emotions would hit, but if I allowed the feelings to come I was afraid I would drown in the overwhelm of grief, and I needed to make sure that it didn’t happen in the middle of the work day when it could completely derail me. So I worked harder, kept busier, stayed later, partied harder…
In the last 4 years I have seen many widows try to outrun their grief, and I have come to the conclusion that it can’t be done. At some point we have to stop and face it head on. At the point that my use of work as a distraction started to affect my health and cause concern to my family I knew something had to give. This was around the 9 month mark - my daughter had broken down in tears telling me that she was scared they were going to lose me too.
I took some time off work - with hindsight I realise I was burning out. Not being at work meant that I could express any emotions whenever they came during the day. I also tried to find more healthy coping mechanisms - writing became my main outlet, but I also took up yoga and meditation. I found regular Reiki treatments helped me feel more balanced, and I joined a choir - singing is good for stress and endorphins.
I quickly found that I didn’t drown in my grief, it didn’t consume me or destroy me. In fact when I gave myself time to sit with my feelings - not to wallow, but to feel them, name them, acknowledge them, write them, I found that they passed far more quickly than when I had been trying to ignore them, suppress them, and power through.
We wouldn’t expect a person with a broken leg to try and walk until after the leg had been stabilised, put in a cast and given time to knit together. We tell other people that feelings are better out than in and we all know that suppressing negative emotions just results in it coming out another way - anger, or bad health for example. Yet for some reason in our western culture we seem to expect people who are grieving to “stay strong”. We guilt them into not being sad because it’s “not what They would have wanted”. A widowed friend of mine was recently told it was “time to pull herself together” - she is 9 months in and has just been through an inquest into her husband’s death, and probate only recently came through - both huge triggers.
Given that we all seem to do it, maybe trying to distract ourselves from grief is part of the process - perhaps the distractions are the cast we put around the broken heart to give ourselves time to build up the strength to finally let ourselves feel the pain.
Once you learn to let grief do its thing you can begin to spot many of the predictable triggers and make some plans for them. There are the obvious big ones - anniversaries and key dates, places that were important to you both. But there are there less obvious ones - coming home after a day or a weekend away or a night out with friends, and not having them to tell. Going somewhere new that they would have loved but never got to see. Family events that they didn’t get to attend (I have my older daughter’s graduation this summer, and I already know that is going to need a period of recalibration afterwards!). Anything that reminds you of your loss can become a wave that can knock you off your feet - when this happens take some time to acknowledge it. Reach out to supportive friends to let them know it’s a tough day. Be kind to yourself and remember that it’s ok to not be ok, and that these feelings will pass.
My children loved Michael Rosen's book "We're going on a bear hunt", and I think of grief as something that looks dark and scary but - we can't go under it, we can't go over it, and we can't go around it. We have to go through it. I will let you work out your sound effects!
I’m not condoning wallowing in a pity party, but these were real people that we loved, we are allowed to miss them, and we need to grieve for them. Only then can we start to heal and begin to move forward.